Editor's Note: On Jan. 31, Philip Glass turns 80. We're marking the event by asking a few of his collaborators and colleagues to write about him and his music. Paul Simon contributed lyrics to a song from Glass' 1986 album Songs from Liquid Days. Look for essays this week from Errol Morris, Nico Muhly, David Lang and Laurie Anderson.
It's difficult to choose one Philip Glass piece and call it a favorite. My mind immediately goes to the first time I saw Einstein on the Beach at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) and Satyagraha at the Metropolitan Opera — the beauty of the productions and the live orchestra had a unique power that left an indelible memory. But then, the films Koyaanisqatsi and Kundun allowed the music to prevail in a manner equally as powerful in a cinematic context. Of Glass's recordings, the 2006 live performance of Music in 12 Parts is exceptional and inspiring for its accuracy, and the sheer stamina required of the ensemble to do justice to this monumental four-hour long piece.
As a musician, I am fascinated by Glass's use of repetition and symmetry. The way he subtly breaks patterns by changing time signatures, or playing different time signatures (a three against two), to interrupt the repetition before it numbs the mind. It allows the listeners to swim in an almost trance-like state until a new musical motif is introduced.
As an orchestrator, Glass has an ear for unique combinations of sounds, like in his piece Voices written for organ and didgeridoo. His symphonic works, too, combine or contrast instruments and voices in a distinctive way: Strings and woodwinds merge with synthesizers played at a level of intensity usually associated with rock music.
His use of what he calls an "end piece" — a short coda which does not recapitulate the melodic lines of the larger preceding piece — is an idea that he used beautifully to conclude my song "The Late Great Johnny Ace." That end piece concept has found its way into my arrangements for live shows, as the band plays a related but original addition to a song, allowing me to shape endings to sequences of songs, or to set the environment for the next tune.
Philip Glass's thinking has been pervasive in several other music genres beyond his classical home, rightfully earning him credit as the most influential of modern classical composers.